Eating a diet heavy on processed foods is the quickest way to surrender good health and get sick, fat, or both.
It only takes a few years for populations who adopt a Western diet based on processed foods to start coming down with Western illnesses.
What is a processed food? If a food has been processed with chemicals, contains ingredients that have been refined, or has artificial flavors, colors or other synthetic components, it’s a processed food.
Part 1 ranks the worst processed foods you can eat, and part 2 shows why processed foods don't keep our bodies healthy.
List of processed foods to avoid
We’ll take a look here at some processed foods that may be perceived as healthy, along with the reasons why they won’t help you achieve your goals.
1. Low-Fat Yogurt
Eating the right kind of yogurt can be a healthy choice, but low-fat yogurt isn’t the way to go.
Because much of the good flavor in dairy products comes from the fat, this discrepancy is usually corrected by plenty of added sugar.
Sometimes yogurt has been pasteurized after culturing, which wipes out the friendly bacteria. Look for full-fat yogurt with live cultures for probiotic benefits.
2. Processed Meat
Meats can be part of a healthy diet, but processed meats like sausage, pepperoni and bacon are poor choices.
While this information is based on observational studies, the association is strong; if you must have processed meats, try to find local sources with minimal additives.
3. Cookies, Pastries and Cakes
These foods are loaded with calories and have essentially no nutrients to deliver. While they’re certainly tasty, you’re not doing yourself any favors by including them in your diet.
The refined sugar, white flour and trans fats commonly found in these treats not only add empty calories, but introduce problematic foods that can contribute to other health problems.
4. White Bread
Made with refined wheat flour, white bread can also be categorized as empty calories, and will spike blood sugar just as effectively as a dose of table sugar. (3)
All the nutrients contained in whole wheat have already been sacrificed to grinding and processing, and even if you can tolerate gluten (the protein contained in wheat) there’s nothing to nourish your body in white bread.
Ezekiel bread or whole grain breads have more to offer.
5. Sugary Drinks
Most modern diets are rich in added sugar, which we all know is detrimental to health on many levels. But some sources of sugar are worse than others, and sweetened drinks are the worst.
Excess sugar consumption causes insulin resistance and can lead to fatty liver disease, as well as increasing the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious disorders including obesity. (7, 8, 9)
6. Ice Cream
Because it’s usually loaded with sugar, ice cream is also a poor nutritional choice. Eating it for dessert is even worse, because you’re piling it on top of a meal, adding even more calories.
And everyone who loves ice cream knows how difficult it can be to eat the amount designated as a serving, which is usually a skimpy half-cup.
If you can’t live without ice cream, consider getting a small hand-crank freezer and making your own with less sugar, or using a healthy alternative sweetener.
7. French Fries and Potato Chips
Be creative and find other foods to satisfy your desire for something crunchy or crispy. Try nuts or baby carrots.
8. Fruit Juices
Fruit juice is commonly mistaken for a healthy food because it comes from fruit, which everyone knows is healthy.
The problem with juice is that it’s been separated from the natural fiber that slows down the assimilation of fructose (the sugar found in fruit).
Drinking fruit juice slams your system with as much or more sugar as sweetened soft drinks. (14)
While fruit juices contain antioxidants and vitamins, benefits can be cancelled out by the sugar content. Pomegranate or acai berry juices, for example, should be taken as a supplement, not consumed to quench thirst.
9. Processed Cheese
Including cheese in your diet can be a smart choice, since it’s rich in vital nutrients, and a single serving delivers all the goodies you’d get in a full glass of milk.
Processed cheese is a different story. Filler ingredients are combined with small amounts of dairy derivatives and carefully engineered to taste, feel and look like genuine cheese.
Invest in the real thing.
10. Agave Nectar
This sweetener is presented as natural and healthy, but it’s actually a highly refined product with more fructose than either table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. (15)
Added fructose in the diet can be destructive to your health, although the fructose in fruit is not a problem. Burdening the liver with the work of processing large amounts of fructose can raise the risk of developing various chronic disorders, like diabetes. (16)
This may be the most popular “junk food” choice in the world, probably because it tastes divine and is convenient and easy to eat.
But most commercial pizzas are made with refined flour and processed meats, neither of which are healthy choices. And the calorie count for a single slice of pizza is staggering.
Making your own pizza at home with quality ingredients is a good choice for an occasional treat, but eating fast-food pizza regularly is a bad idea.
12. Fast Food Meals
Most people realize making fast food a habit won’t help cultivate a healthy body, but it’s extremely popular partly because it’s tasty and cheap.
The trouble is, you’ll pay later with the cost of poor health. And if you feed it to your children, it may raise their risk of obesity and chronic disease. (17)
Don’t indulge in junk food that is mass-produced and highly engineered on a regular basis.
13. Industrially Produced Vegetable Oils
It’s only been the last hundred years or so that added oils in the diet have increased dramatically, pushing us into territory where humans have never gone in the past.
Refined vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, as well as creating higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. (18, 19, 20, 21)
You’re better off using avocado oil, coconut oil, butter and olive oil.
14. Candy Bars
What’s the harm in a candy bar? It tastes good, goes down quickly, and provides a nice shot of energy.
The sugar is the worst of it, but candy bars are often bulked up with refined wheat flour and other ingredients that are likely to make you want more, and end up eating a larger amount than you intended.
When the body metabolizes this type of high-sugar food, you’ll be hungry again in a flash.
Try some dark chocolate, or eat a piece of fruit.
Like processed cheese, margarine is an engineered food designed to look, taste and feel like butter.
Usually made from highly refined vegetable oils, margarine’s solidity is often achieved through hydrogenation, which ups the trans fat content. Trans fats are toxic, and have no place in a healthy diet, even in small amounts.
Manufacturers can label products as “trans fat-free” if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats; with serving sizes designated as a teaspoon or some other unrealistic amount, this can add up fast.
Buy real butter.
16. Sweetened Coffee Drinks
Coffee is loaded with antioxidants and can make healthful contributions to your diet, unless you add sugar or other sweeteners and creamers with artificial ingredients.
Try getting quality coffee and drinking it black. If you must lighten it, minimal amounts of cream or full-fat milk are the best choice.
17. Low-Carb Junk Foods
With the growing popularity of low-carb diets, manufacturers have flooded the market with low-carb treat foods like candy bars and replacement meals.
These junk foods won’t make an impact on the amount of carbs you’re eating, but they contain little nutrition and plenty of artificial ingredients or chemicals.
Why processed foods are bad
Here’s why processed foods don’t keep our bodies healthy and happy.
1. Artificial Ingredients
Artificial ingredients are most often chemicals, plain and simple.
If you buy a granola bar, you might think oats and puffed rice, nuts, raisins, honey, and whatever else would be pretty healthy.
The problem lies in whatever else the manufacturer chose to include, like maybe guar gum, anhydrous milkfat, hydrolyzed gelatin, maltodextrin, or artificial flavor.
Artificial flavor is considered proprietary, and manufacturers don’t have to list ingredients for it, but you can bet it’s a chemical cocktail developed to yield that special flavor so you’ll buy the product again.
Additives and chemicals serve specific purposes: imparting the desired color; preservation; creating a certain texture, etc.
All food additives are supposedly safe for consumption (1), but keep in mind personal opinions might differ from federal regulatory agencies.
2. Plenty of Refined Carbs
Most processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates. While nutritional experts argue about whether or not copious quantities of carbs belong in a healthy diet, everybody seems to agree carbs are best taken from whole food sources.
Simple carbs like those in refined foods are broken down quickly in the digestive system, spiking blood sugar and insulin levels. Cravings hit a couple hours up the road, when the blood sugar roller coaster hits the low spot.
3. Low in Nutrients and Fiber
Processing destroys nutrients and pulverizes or removes the natural fiber content of whole foods.
Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients of every imaginable variety are lost during the manufacturing of processed foods, and science doesn’t yet know what they all are, or what they do.
Whether or not they’ve been identified, these lost components result in gaps in your nutrition. Even if foods have been “enriched,” or claim added vitamins and minerals, these are often synthetic or inferior versions of the real thing.
Both soluble fiber and fermentable fiber play important roles in digestion and nourishment.
Much of the fiber in whole foods isn’t digestible by our systems; this type of fiber feeds the friendly gut bacteria in the large intestine, which ferments and digests it to provide prebiotics necessary for good gut health. (5, 6)
Soluble fiber can also help prevent constipation. Cultivating the proper environment in our guts helps keeps us mentally sharp, cheerful and well. (7)
4. High Amounts of Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed foods are often highly sweetened, and manufacturers hit consumers’ sweet spots with white sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These two affect the body in the same way: badly.
Everyone knows sugar provides empty calories, but it’s worse than that. Sugar devastates delicate metabolic processes (8) and lines you up for disorders like insulin sensitivity, high cholesterol,and elevated triglycerides. It also helps you tuck away plenty of abdominal fat. (9, 10)
According to the USDA, the average American eats 156 pounds of sugar each year; less than 30 comes from the sugar bowl, maybe added to coffee, tea or cereal. Most comes from processed food and drinks. (16)
5. Trans Fats and Vegetable Oils
Cheap fats allow food companies to make more money. Seed and vegetable oils commonly used to enhance flavor and texture like soybean oil have been hydrogenated, which makes them trans fats.
6. Hyper-Rewarding Food Experiences
In times past, taste buds steered us toward the food we needed to survive; rich fatty foods, salty foods and foods with natural sweetness helped us hone in on the necessary fuel and nutrient sources for daily activities.
Today, those same instincts are exploited by food manufacturers. The more we love eating it, the more likely we are to buy it again.
Costly evaluations and engineering operations are conducted by food giants in the fierce competition for business. The result is overly-rewarding culinary experiences that encourage us to overeat. (22, 23)
Biochemists who are very good at their jobs are being paid very well to create food products laced with substances that trip our pleasure-meters to the point where reason, logic and common sense can no longer be accessed, and the eating just goes on and on.
7. Junk Food Addiction
Arising from hyper-rewards experienced when eating foods designed to hijack brain chemistry, addiction to junk foods is becoming more common. (24)
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but some people just cannot stop, and eat the whole bag of chips or box of cookies. A half-gallon of ice cream is gone in a sitting.
Total loss of control with food is addictive behavior, and studies show sugar and some junk foods light up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. (25)
This prospect alone should be enough to scare some sense into most people.
Recap: The take-home message is simple, processed foods pack on pounds and erode your health. Eat real food.